Sunday, February 28, 2010

Complexly Adapting Commentators

I read Niall Ferguson's article in Foreign Affairs (subscription required) the other night in dead-tree version, after I had turned my computer off. It looked like shooting fish in a barrel, so I thought about blogging it, but a number of things intervened, and my general feeling of bummed-outness at the level of Ferguson's argument kept me from doing it.

But Ferguson has a short version of the article in today's Los Angeles Times, and David Ignatius likes it. DougJ and the Balloon Juice crowd have said most of what I would have. I'd like to add one thing, though.

When we physical scientists work up a hypothesis, one of the things we have to show is that it's the best hypothesis. We have to look around to see if other hypotheses fit the evidence. And there's another hypothesis beyond Ferguson's extremely flawed one that predicts societal crashes.

If you have a finite amount of investment to support yourself, say your savings for retirement, and if you spend faster than the investment produces income, things will look pretty good for a while, and then will rapidly crash. It's the inverse of the compound interest effect: you're using mostly interest for a while, but as you start using capital, you get less interest, and you use more capital, and you fall off a cliff. The money disappears in no time at all.

That model implies different causes and remedies than does Ferguson's, so it would be useful to test both of them against the facts and against whatever they are supposed to be. And, as the Balloon Juice crowd shows, Ferguson doesn't know what he's talking about.

We're bound, unfortunately, to hear more stuff like this on complex adaptive systems; they're part of today's intellectual hit parade and can be made to explain or support pretty much anything. As we see, the phrase and the excitement Ferguson produces from it appeal to Ignatius.

Several of the spot-on BJ comments:

Scott Alloway:
Ask them to expand on it. If they can’t, it’s just simple BS. These people need to be called on their crap. Making shit up as if one has a real vision (idea/concept) is game playing. Attach a name tag to it and expect us to buy into it? It’s not 1984 anymore.
Ooookay, as an engineer for whom this phrase has actual real meaning: if you have systems that are difficult to characterize and very sensitive to inputs, you stabilize them and treat them gently. In the climate case, you stop throwing megatons of crap into the system and don’t get any ideas about half-assed compensating effects. In the economic case, you reduce financial leverage to stop overdriving the system and regulate the crap out of it to prevent actors in the system from pushing it strongly into unusual states. And if an airplane is getting out of control, you try to place it back into a known stable state, not throw up your hands, call it a complex system, and let is corkscrew into the ground.
Doctor Science:
Basically, in biology a system which is both “complex” and “adaptive” is going to be stable, not fragile, which is pretty much the opposite of what Ferguson is saying.
Complex does not mean opaque, and adaptive does not mean immune to change. CAS is a catch-all term for any network of interdependent operators where all operators are changed whenever one operator changes. An economy, a culture, an ecosystem, a colony of insects, an immune system, etc.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bits and Pieces - February 25, 2010

Avner Cohen suggests that Israel cool its "existential" worries about Iran. Cohen is the author of the book "Israel and the Bomb," a history of Israel's nuclear weapons program and advocates that Israel give up its official nuclear secrecy.

Are the Tea Partiers reliving the sixties?

Where China is investing. Via, who is a good source for things Chinese.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

We Don't Trust the Brits Either

I've written before about the blockhouse in Warsaw and the wrecking of traffic patterns in Tallinn. The message that US embassies send is that we have to protect our diplomats from those damn furriners.

It has always seemed to me that when you choose a profession, you choose its hazards too. Perhaps I am less risk-averse than most, but I stayed in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for several weeks in a fifth-floor walkup Soviet-era apartment. I could hear the kids playing in the central area with swings and sandbox. "Iiiiiivannn" seemed to be a particular terror, in the way that some kids are.

I bought tomatoes and fruit from street vendors and smetana and an Oral-B toothbrush in the "supermarket" on the corner, more like what we think of as a 7-11.

Meanwhile, the big American hotel and the embassy were not too far away, both with formidable high fences around them and black SUVs for transport. The embassy wasn't quite as bad as some.

So I think Steven Walt and the Avuncular American get it right about this new embassy planned for London. Concrete barriers galore, a moat with water, even, and a single highly-guarded entrance. The building is set back from the street some distance, and I suspect that the glassy looking stuff is a facade over a windowless concrete cube. Subtler than razor wire, but keeping the furriners out nonetheless.

In contrast, Nukes and Spooks likes the building. Not so fortress-like as some others, they say. I guess they missed all those keep-away features, although they show the picture I've got here. Maybe those reporters were in the SUVs going into that American hotel.

There's reason for protection and prudence at our embassies. I walked less widely in Almaty than in Tallinn because I don't speak Russian. US embassies are targets for all sorts of malcontents. But buildings like this, even in a friendly country, say that we don't trust the people of that country and inhibit our diplomats from interacting with those people. And they should be in the cities where the people are.

Update: Here's the Armchair Generalist with links to other critics.

Lemon Aspen

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bits and Pieces - February 23, 2010

More from Tony Judt.

Mohamed ElBaradei, former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is a candidate for the presidency of Egypt. The current president, Hosni Mubarak, is essentially a dictator. ElBaradei can be expected to be quite different, and he is generating some excitement. ElBaradei was extremely diplomatic at the IAEA and skilled at working delicate issues with strong disagreements among the parties. He also knows more about Israel's and Iran's nuclear programs than many people.

Wingnuttery spreads across the Atlantic.

Profit, Loss, and Proliferation

Costs and Conflicts of a Nuclear Weapons Program

by Molly Cernicek and Cheryl Rofer

We have come a long way from the $20 billion price tag (in 1996 dollars) it cost to conceive and build a nuclear weapons program between 1940-45 within the Manhattan Project.

In 1998, Stephen I. Schwartz, based on findings from the Brookings Institution’s U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study, estimated the total cost of developing and maintaining a nuclear weapons capability in the United States between 1940 and 1996 was at least $5.5 trillion. This estimate included research, developing, testing, deployment, nuclear command and control, nuclear intelligence, waste management, environmental remediation, nuclear arms control agreements, and congressional oversight of nuclear programs. Averaged over 56 years, the $980 million per year included the construction of over 70,000 weapons encompassing 65 models at the height of the Cold War. By mid-2006, more than 60,000 of these weapons had been dissembled. (Cost numbers in 1996 dollars from Brookings)

In 1998, the Brookings Institution study estimated that $35.1 billion covered all US nuclear weapons and related programs. Ten years later, Schwartz and colleagues estimated that the American government spent $52.4 billion in fiscal year 2008 to steward approximately 10,000 nuclear weapons and related programs. This number has continued to increase each year since. While it might seem that if we reduce the numbers of nuclear warheads, the cost of manufacturing and military infrastructure essential to allow increased weapons reductions would be much less than that required when maintaining constant or growing production. This is not the trend.

The aging nuclear weapons complex needs substantial investment to create modern manufacturing infrastructure. As the United States reduces nuclear weapons, the ability to manufacture modern nuclear weapons at very short notice will be required.

The cost to steward each nuclear weapon and to keep our knowledge base up to date goes up as our weapons numbers decrease. Part of this increase goes to nonproliferation programs. Yet there is an unsettling “what comes first – the nuclear weapon or the nuclear threat” mentality taking hold, a form of supply and demand cycle.

Nonproliferation programs assess the threats to nuclear proliferation and recommend solutions. A growing conflict is that the same organizations and employees are involved in the identification and solution of global threats, the perceived causes of nuclear proliferation, and new nuclear weapon designs. This combination capitalizes on core competencies and expertise, but possible conflicts of interest must be managed.

As budgets keep rising for nuclear weapons programs, infrastructure, and nonproliferation programs under the same private contractors, the trend is strong on job and project creation, but short on innovative technologies and solutions to reduce not just the global nuclear stockpiles and programs, but to lower the cost of maintaining the US capability.


On the Washington Post for hiring Marc Thiessen as a columnist. And on Thiessen for being a torture proponent second only to former Vice President Cheney and his daughter. Thiessen recently criticized President Obama for killing al-Qaeda types rather than capturing and torturing them.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Atrios (via Mark):
Since there is apparently no way to hold anybody in government legally accountable for torturing people to death or enabling others to torture people to death, we can at least name and shame the people who were a part of it. So, Jennifer Hardy, formerly Jennifer Koester, you are named and shamed.
I encourage everyone to copy, paste, and post. It's the least you can do. We're going to have to hold these people accountable ourselves.

Bits and Pieces - February 22, 2010

Here's the best commentary I've found on the closing of the FBI's Amerithrax investigation of the anthrax attacks of October 2001, and the FBI's site on the invesgtigation.

It's ridiculous to keep this classified. The National Nuclear Security Administration should be telling us how many warheads they've been disassembling. Estimates by Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists:
260 warheads disassembled per year
4500 warheads awaiting diasassembly
60,6000 disassembled total
11,000 disassembled during the nineties
Those 4500 warheads will require 17 years to disassemble at a rate of 260 a year, and funding for the program is decreasing, while competing programs are increasing. However, NNSA says dismantlement will be completed by 2022. The math doesn't work.

And they should be melting down the pits or making them into an oxide, not just storing them.

Some people like to live close to the edge.

Real and False Reason

This piece by George Lakoff is well worth a read. Reason, that old-timey faculty exalted by Kant as unique, is actually cognition plus emotion. For Lakoff, much of our consciousness occurs in embodied metaphorical thought (or, as we know it, "frames").

The Enlightenment conception of reason fled from embodiment with its messy emotions and pains and pleasures. Body and mind had been thought to be distinct categories since Plato. But there have now been plenty of successful challenges to this dualism, particularly in the 20th century (by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the pragmatists William James and John Dewey, and today by many cognitive scientists). We've nonetheless largely inherited the conception of reason as a distinct faculty governed by the laws of logic. It appears in standard liberal political theory, contemporary economics, and many public policy tools when we speak of self-interested, preference-maximizing, rational agents. Lakoff suggests that liberals are still enchanted by what he considers an untenable and archaic dualism, and that there are grave moral and political consequences we liberal sorts ought to get through our heads (or embodied minds?).

Here are some chunks of Lakoff's piece:

Real reason is embodied in two ways. It is physical, in our brain circuitry. And it is based on our bodies as the function in the everyday world, using thought that arises from embodied metaphors. And it is mostly unconscious. False reason sees reason as fully conscious, as literal, disembodied, yet somehow fitting the world directly, and working not via frame-based, metaphorical, narrative and emotional logic, but via the logic of logicians alone.

Empathy is physical, arising from mirror neurons systems tied to emotional circuitry. Self-interest is real as well, and both play their roles in real reason. False reason is supposed to serve material self-interest alone. It’s supposed to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?,”which President Obama assumed that all populists were asking. While Frank Luntz told conservatives to frame health care in terms of the moral concepts of freedom (a “government takeover”) and life (“death panels”), Obama was talking about policy minutia that could not be understood by most people...

...It is a basic principle of false reason that every human being has the same reason governed by logic — and that if you just tell people the truth, they will reason to the right conclusion. The President kept saying, throughout Tea Party summer, that he would just keep telling the truth about policy details that most people could not make moral sense of. And so he did, to the detriment of all of us...

...Every word is neurally connected to a neural circuit characterizing a frame, which in turn is part of a system of frames linked to a moral system. In political discourse, words activate frames, which in turn activate moral systems. This mechanism is not conscious. It is automatic, and it is acquired through repetition. As the language of conservative morality is repeated, frames are activated repeatedly that in turn activate and strengthen the conservative system of thought — unconsciously and automatically. Thus conservative talk radio and the national conservative messaging system are powerful unconscious forces. They work via principles of real reason.

But many liberals, assuming a false view of reason, think that such a messaging system for ideas they believe in would be illegitimate — doing the things that the conservatives do that they consider underhanded. Appealing honestly to the way people really think is seen as emotional and hence irrational and immoral. Liberals, clinging to false reason, simply resist paying attention to real reason...

...The highest conservative value is preserving and empowering their moral system itself. Medicare is anathema to their moral system — a fundamental insult. It violates free market principles and gives people things they haven’t all earned. It is a system where some people are paying —God forbid! — for the medical care of others. For them, Medicare itself is immoral on a grand scale, a fundamental moral issue far more important than any minor proposal for “modest cost savings.” I’m sorry to report it, but that is how conservatives are making use of real reason, and exploiting the fact that so many liberals think it’s contradictory.

WaPo Acknowledges Anthropogenic Climate Change, Says Action is Good for the Nation

The paper of George Will, climate denier, comes out with an editorial contradicting him.
Politicians nonetheless have seized on both the trivial mistakes and the complexity of the science to cast doubt on the underlying and unrefuted truth of human-caused greenhouse gas accumulation. In many cases, it is hard to know whether they are being obtuse or dishonest, and hard to know which would be worse.
And dealing with it is a good thing anyway.
A gradually rising carbon tax made sense even before "global warming" entered most people's vocabulary. Almost as useful would be a simple cap-and-rebate system that required industry to pay for greenhouse-gas emissions. Either would reduce American dependence on dictators in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela while lowering air pollution of all kinds. Neither would require a complicated government bureaucracy of the kind that has understandably alarmed some people while giving others a pretext for opposition. And if politicians can't bear to stand behind an increased tax, the revenue from either proposal could all be returned in a fair and progressive way.
So now their ombudsman is going to slap Will's wrists, right?


Saturday, February 20, 2010

We Live On a Water Planet

I’m still working on that lecture on climate change.

I’ve been trying to track down the issues on water in the climate models. Water is funny stuff, and its funny thermodynamic properties are responsible for the kind of world we live in.

Washington has been suffering from solid, particulate water that will eventually melt into liquid. It’s a mixed blessing for us that water’s melting point is within the normal range of temperatures where most of us live. Its boiling point is considerably above, but if you have a heat source, water is a great heat transfer medium for cooking food and can become part of that food, as in soup.

Even when it’s not boiling, though, water vaporizes. In our dry Santa Fe climate, snow and ice disappear without ever melting. And Washingtonians know well how much water the air can hold on a hot day.

Water is a greenhouse gas, and there is more of it in the atmosphere than any other, including carbon dioxide. But, from what I read, it is not included in the climate models in the same way as carbon dioxide; it is a feedback rather than an input. I include the qualification because I have not yet found an explanation of how water is treated that makes sense to me.

I have concluded that water concentrations in air are not included as an input to the models because water is everywhere on earth and it is so volatile. By volatile, I mean that it rapidly establishes an equilibrium among its liquid, solid, and gaseous forms. So if you include temperature as an input along with water’s thermodynamic properties, the model will calculate the correct concentration of water in the atmosphere. When added carbon dioxide increases the temperature, the additional water in the atmosphere is automatically calculated.

That’s my bottom line. Let’s see what a few of the climate blogs and websites have to say.

Skeptical Science seems to be the closest to my interpretation:
Unlike external forcings such as CO2 which can be added to the atmosphere, the level of water vapour in the atmosphere is a function of temperature. Water vapour is brought into the atmosphere via evaporation - the rate depends on the temperature of the ocean and air, being governed by the Clausius-Clapeyron relation. If extra water is added to the atmosphere, it condenses and falls as rain or snow within a week or two. Similarly, if somehow moisture was sucked out of the atmosphere, evaporation would restore water vapour levels to 'normal levels' in short time.
A bit more here, but not substantially different.

Scholars and Rogues has a similar explanation.
Basically, water vapor is a more important greenhouse gas than CO2, but because CO2 will cause heating independently of water vapor, as man-made CO2 increases global heating, water vapor will increase too, boosting the amount of warming with a positive feedback loop. How much exactly is up for debate, and there’s not a long enough data series on water vapor in the atmosphere to know everything. But just because humans can’t increase or decrease water vapor in the air directly doesn’t mean that CO2 heating of the air won’t do so indirectly.
But they precede it with an explanation I find confusing.

RealClimate’s argument is impossible to summarize in a short quote. This seems to be the center of it:
While water vapour is indeed the most important greenhouse gas, the issue that makes it a feedback (rather than a forcing) is the relatively short residence time for water in the atmosphere (around 10 days). To demonstrate how quickly water reacts, I did a GCM experiment where I removed all the water in the atmosphere and waited to see how quickly it would fill up again (through evaporation from the ocean) . The result is shown in the figure. It’s not a very exciting graph because the atmosphere fills up very quickly. At Day 0 there is zero water, but after only 14 days, the water is back to 90% of its normal value, and after 50 days it’s back to within 1%.
This comes after a calculation of the percentage that the various greenhouse gases contribute by removing them from model calculations. If someone is skeptical about models, I don’t think that the way to prove anything to them is through model calculations.

I also don’t like the use of the word forcing. It doesn’t have an immediately obvious meaning to the general public; it means any factor that raises or lowers the earth’s temperature. I’m not sure where the word came from. I haven’t seen it in chemistry or physics. I’m usually pretty good at figuring out meanings from context, but I didn’t feel confident about this one until I found an explicit definition. It's not going to go away, though; too implanted in the modeling community.

I’m not convinced that my interpretation of why water vapor is treated as a feedback rather than an input is correct, although writing this post has made me more confident of my logic. And it doesn’t conflict with any of the explanations I’ve quoted.

Tortured Torture Accountability

Last week, Dick Cheney took ownership not only of the Bush administration torture regime, acts that constitute war crimes under US civil code and international law. He also took authorship of its accountability.

Here's how Scott Horton put it:

“I was a big supporter of waterboarding,” Cheney said in an appearance on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. He went on to explain that Justice Department lawyers had been instructed to write legal opinions to cover the use of this and other torture techniques after the White House had settled on them.

Section 2340A of the federal criminal code makes it an offense to torture or to conspire to torture. Violators are subject to jail terms or to death in appropriate cases, as where death results from the application of torture techniques. Prosecutors have argued that a criminal investigation into torture undertaken with the direction of the Bush White House would raise complex legal issues, and proof would be difficult. But what about cases in which an instigator openly and notoriously brags about his role in torture? Cheney told Jonathan Karl that he used his position within the National Security Council to advocate for the use of waterboarding and other torture techniques. Former CIA agent John Kiriakou and others have confirmed that when waterboarding was administered, it was only after receiving NSC clearance. Hence, Cheney was not speaking hypothetically but admitting his involvement in the process that led to decisions to waterboard in at least three cases.

Cheney admitted to war crimes. War crimes according to "normal beliefs," that is, as John Dean said.

Waterboarding is torture. The only people still disputing this are those who have supported torture but somehow also know it's illegal and immoral, thus needing to make the case that waterboarding is not torture, or at least not the icky Inquisitional kind. The waterboarding-is-not-torture schtick is a red herring, or perhaps a macabre form of catharsis. But waterboarding is torture and, until Cheney, considered to be so even by the United States government, which at the end of World War II prosecuted and sentenced for war crimes a Japanese soldier who had used waterboarding.

Before someone says, "well, 9-11 changed everything," note that torturing states or groups have usually cited as an excuse some form of crisis. In this "state of necessity," a sense of urgency as defined by the torturers somehow suspended the most basic principles of morality and crystal clear law. The self-declared state of necessity somehow bestowed upon the torturers the power of God, as it were.

Let's make this an easy-to-digest hypothetical syllogism. If it's waterboarding, it's torture. If it's torture, it's a war crime. Therefore, if it's waterboarding, it's a war crime. Cheney stated, "I was a big supporter of waterboarding." Cheney in essence has said, "I was a big supporter of a war crime."

He has taken ownership. Now what?

More later.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Climate Change and Security

The Quadrennial Defense Review Report was released a few weeks ago by the US Department of Defense. In the document there are four pages devoted to climate change. The Report states that proactive efforts are necessary to respond effectively to challenges arising from the interrelation between climate change, energy security, and economic stability. The report notes that the effects of climate change are already occurring all over the world and will have significant geopolitical impacts. These include, of course,
...poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.
The Report urges proactive engagement with particularly vulnerable countries, adjustments in military infrastructure and capabilities in the name of "operational readiness," accelerated energy and conservation technology innovation and development, collaboration with other government agencies and foreign governments, greater energy efficiency and energy infrastructure defense, increased innovation and use of renewable energy sources, and so on.

Why do Congress people like Sen. Inhofe want to make America less secure?


Networked Ordinary Language

While involved in a rather OCD-driven google search this morning for the release year of a certain album by an obscure Peruvian chicha band from the 60s/70s, it occurred to me that it would be a lot easier to find (if it's even there somewhere) if our common languages had been built for the internet age in the first place.

I don't mean vocabulary, where certain words enter a language parallel to the widespread adoption of a new technology and become a normal part of that language ("online," "email," etc.). And I don't mean something along the lines of all of us speaking to each other in html code where little Billy's first word to his adoring parents might be "tag."

What would our shared language look like if it were constructed out of a world in which the internet is taken universally as a matter of course - like trees and the sky and animals or eating and sleeping? Something so ontologically present that spoken and written language would be incoherent without it built into the very structure and essence of the language?

Like, it would really help me right now if numerical years in Spanish were always preceded by the word "año" because I don't want to sift through links that have nothing to do with the year of the album. What if our language was built from the ground up like this, prepared inherently for google searches? Would this ultimately render google redundant or a technology that would never have been developed at all? If we started from today, never having spoken any other language except grunts and shouts, would language 10,000 years down the line be an inherently different thing than as we know it? Would communication?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bits and Pieces - February 18, 2010

Ellen Tauscher, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, at the Second Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit:
Our primary focus today is no longer deterring a large-scale nuclear conflict between two superpowers, but preventing the use of even a single nuclear weapon.
Another thing a credible deterrent does not depend on is testing.
As the release of the Nuclear Posture Review approaches, there is speculation as to which way it will tilt. The State Department seems to be coming on strong for President Obama's move toward the concept that the only function of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others.

And, speaking of such things, here's Vice President Biden's speech today. On the Nuclear Posture Review:
We believe we have developed a broad and deep consensus on the importance of the President’s agenda and the steps we must take to achieve it. The results will be presented to Congress soon.
He's addressing the speculation that there is deep disagreement among the agencies.

Matt Miller reminds us that federal budgets hardly ever turn out the way they're projected.

Disappointing news for UFO buffs.

People support the elements of the health care reform bill(s), even if they don't like the bill(s) themselves.

Will China support Iran sanctions? David Shorr and the International Crisis Group come to similar conclusions.

The manifesto from the guy who flew a plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas today.

Profit, Loss, and Proliferation

What Are Government’s Functions?

by Cheryl Rofer and Molly Cernicek

We have become, over the past thirty years, accustomed to a government that contracts out many of its functions. But it wasn’t always that way. So perhaps it’s worthwhile to consider which functions are better kept under government control and which can be contracted out.

We can start with Max Weber’s definition of the state as exercising authority on violence over a given territory, and being the only entity exercising such authority. That implies that police and military use of violence are reserved to the state or to agents it authorizes. That last is a big loophole, but typically police actions involving violence are reserved to state-employed people, and private protection services must be licensed and are allowed less leeway in using violence. In the military, states may employ mercenaries, but they have generally been found to be less desirable than directly-employed military. Mercenaries are not subject to the chain of command to the same degree that direct employees or conscripts are, and there is always the danger, if they are part of another organization, that that organization will use its military capabilities against the state.

The monopoly on violence implies a state judicial system, to monitor and control violence and other actions against people and property. It also implies control of policy with respect to other states, because those policies and actions can lead to military interactions.

A state must provide for its own continuity, so elections and other decision-making on holders of authority must remain with the state. Education for its citizens is necessary to allow them to make responsible decisions on governance.

Because commerce is an essential part of what people do, the state needs to supply infrastructure for commerce. And here we get into the gray areas. The United States government has provided mail and other communication services, built a national highway system and airports, and may yet insist on broad health insurance coverage. It has licensed monopolies or near-monopolies in communication services, transportation, provision of household water, and electrical power generation. Some of these services are natural monopolies, but changes in technology can change that status.

So telephone service, when it depended on wires and central exchanges, was a natural monopoly. Cell phone service changed that and therefore changed the economic model, although the government still provides regulation over the providers. For situations like this, it may be better to consider business and revenue models to determine whether government or private industry is better at a task.

Under Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain in the 1980s, the idea that the market could do it all better took hold and is with us still. One of the arguments in favor of privatization was that the private sector, because of its competition in the market, is much more efficient than the government, which is not subjected to the same discipline. Another argument was that the civil service system was inflexible, and that private firms could supply personnel at times when they were needed in government, and then divert those personnel to other, nongovernmental tasks when they were no longer needed in government, saving the government not only unnecessary salaries short-term, but more costly retirement obligations long-term. This presented a reasonable rationale to contract with private firms.

There is more to these arguments, though.

For every civil service position contracted out, one might expect that a full-time contractor position would be created for a limited term and that federal government expenditures would decrease by contracting. Yet this has not occurred.

Although no single government office tracks numbers of contractors, NYU Professor Paul C. Light estimates the number of federal contractors grew from 4.4 million in 1999 to more than 7.5 million by the end of fiscal year 2005. A continued upward trend is expected.

This dramatic increase in governmental contracting over the past decade has brought with it a host of other issues including waste, fraud, corruption, crime, accountability, and poor personnel and wage practices. Many contracts are awarded noncompetitively.

So, an idea created to save taxpayers money has ended up costing the taxpayers far more than many would have thought. A global governmental contracting industry has grown into hundreds of millions of dollars, thousands of companies, and millions of private sector employees dependent on our government staying huge for their livelihoods. Now what?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How Close is Iran To a Bomb?

MT and Helmut both asked me the other day to comment on Iran's enrichment capabilities and how close those capabilities may take Iran toward a nuclear weapon, if that is their intent.

Rather than go through a bunch of calculations, which I find tedious and I suspect readers find boring, I'm going to give some rules of thumb and a lot of links to posts where people have done a bunch of calculations.

Not only is that a good excuse for not doing calculations I don't like to do, I think that it's the best way to assess how close Iran might be to a bomb.

And, okay, I'll say a bit about enrichment, with some numbers.

Iran has been enriching its uranium at its Natanz plant to 3.5% U-235, which is what is used in most civilian reactors. The Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), provided by the United States under the Atoms for Peace program, uses fuel enriched to about 20% U-235. Twenty percent is somewhat arbitrarily set as the cutoff between reactor grade and weapons grade. But a bomb of 20% U-235 would need more than 400 kilograms of uranium, according to Wikipedia. Uranium is denser than lead, but that's about 20 liters volume, plus the conventional explosives to create the critical mass, plus detonators, timers, and a bunch of stuff. Too big for a missile or pretty much anything smaller than a truck.

The question, though, is how easy it is to get from there to some reasonable-sized bomb. There are various tricks that can be played to decrease the critical mass, but the unreflected values in the Wikipedia article are indicative enough for our qualitative consideration.

Taking the enrichment to 90% and above decreases the critical mass to something like 50-60 kilograms, much easier to work with.

Most of the "separative work," the work that goes into removing the natural 99+% of U-238 to enrich uranium, takes place in enriching from the natural 0.7% U-235 to 3.5%. So less separative work is needed to go to 20% and on up to 90%. That's why Iran is talking about a couple of hundred centrifuges to enrich for the TRR fuel, while they've been running several thousand to produce 3.5%. That's also why a small facility like Fordow, the one that was announced last fall, looks like a finishing plant that would do the final enrichment to weapons grade. The Manhattan Project used the enormous gaseous diffusion plants at Oak Ridge to produce a first enrichment, and then the calutrons to go to weapons grade.

For the higher enrichments, the sequence in which material is fed into the various centrifuges may need to be changed. Two streams come out of a centrifuge: one slightly enriched and one slightly depleted. You don't want to throw away the U-235 in the depleted stream, though, especially if you're starting with a feed of 3.5%. I tried to explain that a while back, and I've stolen this photo from ISIS via my older post.

Those thin tubes on top of the centrifuges are the input and two outputs. They need to be reconfigured to go to the higher enrichments. If you really like repetitive math, you can find more of this kind of thing in a chemical engineering text on separations. It will be in the section on fractional distillation and theoretical plates, if there's not a section on separative work.

There's also a question of the separative work capacity of the centrifuges Iran has installed. That is the basis for calculating how long and how many centrifuges will be needed to get to weapons grade enrichment. Joshua Pollock recently summarized the best estimates of Iran's centrifuges, which are of an early and not-too-efficient design. Iran has made noises about a new generation of centrifuges, but they're not there yet.

Jeffrey Lewis gives an explanation that may help with understanding separative work. It doesn't particularly work for me, but it may for others.

For the bottom line, I'll go back to my quick answer to MT: Iran has been 3 to 5 years away from a bomb for a few decades. At Natanz, they have a capability that can give them the enriched uranium for a bomb. They will learn more by enriching to 20%. In particular, impurities will tend to collect in one or another fraction and can cause various problems. They will learn more about dealing with these problems. They need quite a bit more in the way of explosives, detonators, and timers to make a bomb. We don't know how far along they are in that. If they choose to get fancy, like the North Koreans seem to have, their job is harder.

It all depends on what they want to do and how fast they want to do it.

Quote of the Day

Alan Simpson, former Senator from Wyoming:
There isn’t a single sitting member of Congress — not one — that doesn’t know exactly where we’re headed [in the national debt]. And to use the politics of fear and division and hate on each other — we are at a point right now where it doesn’t make a damn whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican if you’ve forgotten you’re an American.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Stuff of Dreams

No free or bootleg link to the full paper seems to surfaced yet, alas, but Giulio Tononi is the most daring yet hard-boiled of theorists in neuroscience, so I say track it down or at least take note--if you're the sort of person who likes to know just how near the scientific frontier is approaching to some ginormous age-old questions.

Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology

Yuval Nir and Giulio Tononi
Trends in Cognitive Sciences
Volume 14, Issue 2, February 2010, Pages 88-100

Dreams are a remarkable experiment in psychology and neuroscience, conducted every night in every sleeping person. They show that the human brain, disconnected from the environment, can generate an entire world of conscious experiences by itself. Content analysis and developmental studies have promoted understanding of dream phenomenology. In parallel, brain lesion studies, functional imaging and neurophysiology have advanced current knowledge of the neural basis of dreaming. It is now possible to start integrating these two strands of research to address fundamental questions that dreams pose for cognitive neuroscience: how conscious experiences in sleep relate to underlying brain activity; why the dreamer is largely disconnected from the environment; and whether dreaming is more closely related to mental imagery or to perception.

Bits and Pieces - February 16, 2010

Hormone oxytocin may help Asperger's patients. A clue to autism's workings?

I have no sympathy for Kevin Smith, having had fat people oozing over the armrests next to me in airplanes. That said, it would be nice if the airlines could be a bit more generous with seating space.

How Evan Bayh could build the image he seems to want.

A nice statement of the conflict between wanting more government services and no taxes.

The tantalizing mystery of the Glomar Explorer's attempt to raise a sunken Soviet submarine.

Loan guarantees for new nuclear reactor construction.
This will provide jobs and the power the US needs. I hope the companies involved can meet the challenge.

Discussion is building on the "nuclear umbrella" that the US offers to its allies. Turns out there are a variety of opinions on its effectiveness and desirability.

Jon Stewart as a factor in foreign relations.

Too much anger already.

A contribution to Helmut's music lists: Väikeste Lõõtspillide Ühing (The Association of Little Accordions). Caution: the site plays their music at high volume, and I haven't figured out how to avoid it, other than turning the sound off.

Tim Ferris on Science and Ideology

For as long as I have been alive, people have been saying that science is fine in its place but has inherent limitations. Science, it is said, can adjudicate questions of fact but not of value. It can weigh quantities but not qualities. It shows "how the heavens go, but not how to go to heaven." I wouldn't be so sure about that. We human beings all belong to one species, on a planet where all life is kin, and astronomers at their telescopes find no wall bifurcating the universe. To insist that we live in two worlds, one accessible to science and the other not, is to back the losing line in the winningest game ever yet played by humans. My money's on science and liberty.

at Huffpo

Profit, Loss, and Proliferation

by Cheryl Rofer and Molly Cernicek

For a year or so, we have been collecting material and looking at a number of issues on how the market affects nuclear proliferation. Almost every day we see more examples of privatization’s impact on weapons manufacturing and nonproliferation.

For a while, we thought we’d write a book out of all the material and ideas we had collected, but that’s just not happening. Part of the problem seems to be that there’s just too much to pull it together coherently in the time we’ve allowed ourselves.

So we thought that if we blogged it, we could work it a bit at a time. Plus we would get feedback from Phronauts.

We are looking at the proliferation of nuclear weapons through an economic lens. For the past thirty years or so, the United States and Britain have led a push to privatize government functions. On the other side of the spectrum Pakistani citizen Abdul Qadeer Khan developed a privatized network of suppliers of nuclear weapons parts illustrating how the internet and the movement of scientists and engineers from one country to another have made nuclear know-how more available to more people than ever before.

Typically, proliferation of nuclear weapons has been regarded as an international governmental problem, with the economic interests of players involved largely ignored. This may be due to the victory of free-market economics over the past thirty years or so. David Kaiser provides some historical background. The assumption that the market knows best implies that private firms must do a much better job at anything than government and has been the primary justification for that push to privatization. This mindset, as Kaiser notes, is thoroughly ingrained in many people’s thinking, particularly those who came to adulthood within the last thirty years.

That strain of economic thinking has also affected decisions on nuclear weapons. That is why we think that looking at nuclear proliferation through an economic lens may be useful. We are trying to get beyond that pervasive mindset that the market knows all, which limits the kinds of questions that might be asked.

For example, we might ask whether there are functions that should be reserved to government. Or we might ask whether the profit motive encourages corruption in the arena of weapons despite the substantial risks of getting caught. And what those risks are. Or we might look at the government-private alliance in manufacturing conventional arms and ask whether it could be a model for nuclear weapons, now that the design labs are under private contract. We’ll explore other countries’ public-private models such as Britain’s nuclear weapons program, now largely outsourced to American firms, and Russia’s privatization model that encompasses just about every governmental sector with the exception of their nuclear weapons laboratories.

We’ll touch on those and many other issues in this series. We hope to write at least one post a week.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Parsing the Iran News

We have a Hillary Clinton interview and a claim from Iran that the P5+1 have made a new offer on the enrichment front. And, um yeah, a "highly newsworthy" story that President Ahmadinejad has called for world nuclear disarmament while saying that Iran will never build nuclear weapons.

I see little indication that reporters are applying much mental effort to any of these stories. It probably would be worthwhile for them to indicate in the Clinton stories that Ahmadinejad again called for nuclear disarmament. But he has said such things before, so whether this latest repetition is "highly newsworthy" is open to question. And, sorry to say, for those of us who have been watching Iran for a while, it has the look of yet another shiny thing being dangled in front of those who still believe that Iran's nuclear program is completely innocuous.

Likewise, atomic energy organisation chief Ali Akbar Salehi's claim, with no details, that there is a new offer on the table has a shiny look to it. The news story adduces some Turkish actions to imply that perhaps Turkey will play a role, which has seemed a possibility in the past, but there's really not much to the story beyond that Iran has made another claim.

Clinton has been quoted in a number of ways, frequently indirectly. I'm looking forward to a transcript on the State Department website, which hasn't shown up yet. She seems to be focusing on the Revolutionary Guard, which is not a bad idea; split them from the rest of the government, make them look like they are subverting the revolution into a military dictatorship, which may in fact be happening. I've seen reports saying that she claimed that Iran is making nuclear weapons, but I have also seen quotes to the effect that "evidence is accumulating" that that is a possibility. The two are quite different.

I belong to an e-mail list that is convinced that the United States government is ready to bomb Iran now, or to let Israel do it. You may have seen some of this on other blogs. I find this unpersuasive. Around the turn of the year, the administration provided several press availabilities in which they emphasized the difficulty of getting a desired effect from bombing Iran. If I recall correctly, they even had some Israeli statements to that effect. Clearly there are people who want to bomb Iran, but they've been agitating for quite a long time now, and the Obama administration seems less inclined in this direction than the Bush administration was. And, in this latest interview, when asked if an attack was planned, Clinton said "no." That hasn't been widely reported either.

So, like the prospect of an Iranian nuke, the prospect of Iranian bombing seems some distance away. But if indeed Iran is in favor of universal nuclear disarmament, it is playing some dangerous games indeed, which tend to give those in favor of bombing much of what they want. For example, President Ahmadinejad's claims that they have already enriched some uranium to nearly 20%. This is improbable, unless they had begun to do it long before he said they did.

Update: Some good thinking here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Big Waves - Mavericks

Biggest waves for a paddle surfing event ever. Mavericks in northern California over the past couple of days. Awesome.

Photo credits: Top: Adam Lau / San Francisco Chronicle. Bottom: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / San Francisco Chronicle

Friday, February 12, 2010

Finger Lime

On Polling

The New York Times today seems to be comparing apples and oranges: "Poll Finds Edge for Obama Over G.O.P. Among the Public." I haven't looked through the whole poll to see if there was a question: "Would you rather have a beer with President Obama or with the Republican Party?" but I suspect that it isn't there. So they must be putting numbers for presidential approval next to the generic do you like Democrats or Republicans or somesuch.

I don't pay a lot of attention to polls. I did page through the first several of the Times's poll results and thought that if someone asked me those questions, my likely answer would be "Yes - whatever." I don't usually have that opportunity, though, because my phone has caller id, and if I make the mistake of picking up a polling call, I tell them to take my name off their list.

Part of the problem with polls is that you don't know what people mean by their answers. Here's a rather amazing difference that has no obvious explanation: people are more in favor of "gays and lesbians" in the military than "homosexuals."

It might be interesting to see the results if the Times asked if people would rather have a beer with President Obama or John Bohner. Mitch McConnell?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


I know everyone is on tenterhooks awaiting updates on DC's Snowpocalypso III. Here you go. That is my street and those are cars. At least the photo might help explain why the federal government isn't working... this week.

Oh, and check this out. It seems somehow to summarize DC in a nutshell - not the political DC, but the governance DC.

Bits and Pieces - February 10, 2010

Attitudes inside Iran toward their nuclear program.

I like this approach to science writing, not so much this one. It seems to me the first respects the reader and the second doesn't. What the second is trying to illustrate are some aspects of what is called number theory. There was a light hint in the first blog in this series that it would take on development of the natural numbers and other fascinating mathematics that I was first introduced to in high school. This is a development of some of the qualities of natural numbers, but scrambled together. OTOH, if the purpose is to make mathematics "fun," then there are any number of illustrative puzzles in some older books that I monopolized from my library from grade school up. There may be some more recent books, too, but I'm not acquainted with them. I'm wondering how it looks to someone who doesn't find the Peano postulates more fun than, well, lots of things.

I haven't seen this clear a statement of sexism in a very long time. Possession of the Y chromosome equals a love of snow shovels, whether in little kids or in teh gay. I hope all you Y-chromosome types are listening to Kathleen Parker's buildup so that she doesn't have to shovel snow!

Steven Pearlstein is making a lot of sense lately. Don't call them taxes!

Tony Judt, one of the most brilliant historians we have, is paralyzed from the neck down by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He is writing a series of short memoirs, of which this is one. He retains his wit and good humor in his writing. I have enjoyed his work so much.

IPCC Credibility, Denier Credibility

For the umpteenth time, an article in yesterday's NY Times discusses what it calls a "credibility siege" of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its director, Rajendra Pachauri. The articles rehearses the claims against Pachauri and the IPCC. Although a number of flagrantly false claims have been leveled against the IPCC, the two main, legitimate criticisms regard, first, Pachauri's role as occasional expert advisor to various companies and banks. He also happens to provide advice to governments and NGOs. Some of the companies, however, have donated to the NGO Pachauri also directs, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), based in New Delhi. And, although Pachauri earns around $50-60K per year according to his Indian tax returns, he has been called out for years now on what are alleged to be conflicts of interest. The second criticism is directed more at the entire IPCC for recent lapses in scientific rigor, including citing a claim in its most recent, Fourth Report about the rate of Himalayan glacier melting which the original scientist has since retracted. The IPCC has responded here.

I suggest you read through the links and judge for yourself. Consider also that some 450 scientists were involved as lead authors in drafting the Fourth IPCC Report, with an additional 800 as contributing authors, and another 2500 as reviewers. You're bound to get a wanker or two doing shoddy work, not following the IPCC's own principles and procedures (pdf). Doesn't excuse the shoddiness and stupidity, of course. And my own view is that Pachauri ought to resign - he's non-essential to a task that is essential. The lapses say nothing about the reality of climate change, however.

But the reality of the science also illustrates that criticism from most climate skeptics is highly selective from a massive amount of studies, claims, reports, etc.

Further, in addition to oil industry funding of several key thinktank climate deniers, we ought to take a look at some of the most public skeptics themselves. Lord Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brentley, who has a training in classics and journalism, has taken on perhaps the most public climate skeptic role. He refers to climate change as an invention of the political left in the name of taking over the world and spends much of his time away from reading the classics disputing climate science. One major political tool has been not simply to dispute the science but to misrepresent some climate scientists' claims altogether for political (and often economic) gain or to destroy the reputations of climate scientists.

As I've said before, legitimate criticism and skepticism is essential to good, rigorous science (and philosophy, economics, etc.). See Cheryl's post here too. And there are uncertainties in climate science as there are almost by definition in any science or pursuit of knowledge. Most of the legitimate criticism and skepticism goes unreported or underreported, actually, because it's all academic-y. Public spokespeople add their own language for public consumption. Much of this comes out of the politically volatile mix of over 1000 climate change lobby groups.

But the issue of climate change is not simply a matter of science. The science provides us with a basis for our decision-making and its substance. The problem of climate change is largely a matter of the effects of climate change on human beings and ecosystems, and how then the science might inform our thinking about our economies, politics, and ethics. In other words, legitimate climate change disputes are also about policy. The thing is that we can only make intelligent policy decisions to the best of our current abilities, decisions about the future well-being of our progeny, if the empirical descriptions we have of the world are accurate. And there are then very real policy discussions to be had involving different, competing values.

I think there's a pretty big difference between shoddy science that was essentially an unsubstantiated claim retracted when discovered, and making unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable claims deliberately.

Greengage Plums

Torture Notes

A UK court has forced the British government to release documents showing that the US authorities tortured detainee Binyam Mohamed while in CIA custody in Pakistan. The stress positions and sleep deprivation used on Mohamed are banned by the UK in a law dating to 1972 and the conflict in Northern Ireland. The British army has already broken that law (and here).

Andrew Sullivan, adding to the case made by Yglesias, obliterates Marc Thiessen's attempt to say that US torture is nothing like Nazi or Khmer Rouge torture.

A key figure in Bush administration war commissions, William Lietzau, is hired by the Obama administration Defense Department as deputy assistant secretary for detainee affairs.

If you haven't read this important piece, Scott Horton lays out the case of the Guantánamo "suicides." Sullivan discusses further in the Times Online. Update by Scott here.

Plus, a clearing house illustration of torture apologia. The number of really bad arguments and claims made in torture's defense is stunning. The pro-torture people really really want it.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Monsanto Moratorium in India

The Indian High Court has just ruled to delay indefinitely the introduction of bt-brinjal here, a genetically modified eggplant introduced by a company (Mahyco) that is 26% owned by Monsanto.

Here's the Environment Minister, Jiram Ramesh, talking some some sense in the Indian Express:
We cannot depend on private sector to drive the biotechnology research in our agriculture sector . . . India's first green revolution was not powered by the private sector. And there is no reason to believe that the second green revolution would be driven by private companies.
The debate has largely focused -- predictably -- on safety issues; indeed, it's the only focus of the NYT article linked in the title. But Ramesh, here, is practically alone in calling attention to another serious concern. It isn't that the agribusiness model is non-Indian or Western or too scientific (Norman Borlaug's recent passing was noted with much sorrow in the national press, here, where he was widely appreciated).

Instead, the problem is that private-sector ag models have resulted in patents and lawsuits and harassment and intimidation of the people who grow our food. These are problems. Is private ag research a bad thing? Not at all. Bullying farmers whose non-GM crops happen to be contaminated by Monsanto's own? That's a bad thing. And I think India is wise, for now, to be avoiding it.

Here's the conclusion from a NYT editorial last October. It's akin to the point Ramesh is making:
Agriculture is at the frontier of technological progress. Its innovations will determine, to a large extent, whether and at what cost this country and the world will be able to feed its growing populations. No company should dominate such an essential business.
[Sharp-eyed phronauts will recognize Jiram Ramesh as the same guy who called bullshit on the IPCC's conclusion that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035. The problem isn't that the glaciers aren't melting; it's that those advocating policy to address climate change need credible evidence in place of speculation, especially from bodies like the IPCC.]

Puzzle of the Day


= ?

The Haggle and the Macho Match

Juan Cole today quotes Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, as saying
Mr President [Ahmadinejad] made the comment in a subtle way. If you paid attention to his comments, he said: Start the 20-per cent enrichment, but the doors for cooperation are still open and we are still ready for fuel swap. In other words, we - although we will start the 20-per cent enrichment tomorrow - will stop the enrichment as soon as they (West) come to their senses and provide our fuel.
There are a number of ways to parse this; they will stop the 20% enrichment? all enrichment? The fuel must come tomorrow? Unfortunately, this kind of uncertainty clings to all statements on the subject coming out of Iran.

I am probably the world's worst haggler. When I try to analyze this situation in those terms, there's an awful lot that doesn't make sense. That could be my haggling inadequacies or it could be that the parties are not making sense in their bargaining.

There seem to be two things going on: a haggle and a macho match. The two can be combined in diplomatic negotiations, but the addition of too much macho, it seems to me, has poisoned a compromise for both sides. Add in the uncertainties of who is speaking for the Iranian government and the internal changes of personnel and policy, and it’s not clear that any agreement will be possible.

Not showing weakness may be a reasonable strategy in international negotations. Of course, there’s that kind of strength and there’s the kind of strength that can dare to show weakness. The US and other P5+1 have that kind of strength, but whether it is wise to show weakness in this way depends on the situation, and the way Iran has presented its case has had aspects of forcing a show of weakness on the part of the P5+1, which makes it much more difficult to do, even from a position of unquestioned military and economic strength. To be sure, the Iranians may feel that the P5+1 has been playing a similar game, hoping to force Iran to take their offer without modification. I’m talking about perception, not intentions. Whatever the intentions, if either side accepts the other’s position, it involves a certain amount of humiliation.

That’s the macho side of the interaction. As Cole noted, Saddam Hussein was playing the macho game too, and the Iranians might well note what it got him. And there are additional macho players within Iran and the bomb-Iran faction outside.

The macho game has brought both sides to a place where they can’t move. The haggle is the part I don’t understand, which may be my inadequacies or it may be the strange moves Iran is making, most probably because of their internal disagreements.

I will oversimplify and say you want to buy a rug in the bazaar. You offer $50 and the merchant says, no, $500. That's the start, and we expect that the two will be some distance apart. With various protestations of not having any more money in your wallet and the prospect that his children will go hungry, you get to $150 offered and $200 demanded. Suddenly another guy jumps up from behind the stall and says that he’s really the one in charge and for just ten dollars more ($160), you can have the rug, and at the same time the guy you’ve been negotiating with says no, he really can't let it go for less than $450. It seems to me that that is the current state of the Iranian negotations.

The question is who has the power in this negotiation. It seems to me unquestionable that it's not Iran in terms of military and economic might, to the extent that sanctions work. What power Iran has is to move toward a nuclear weapons program. That's a very negative sort of power and potentially involves a great deal of international disapprobation, not to mention Israel's nuclear arsenal. But Iran behaves as though it possesses the greater power.

That's nice for a bluff, I guess, and at this point we get into the kind of haggling that is simply incomprehensible to me. It's also like poker, which I have finally come to terms with as a pastime that people enjoy but is quite outside what I consider pleasurable.

I think there's misjudgement on both sides here as to what each can do, and perhaps a deliberate attempt by both sides to break the other. Humiliate yourselves and offer us the uranium in desperation to make us stop enriching, say the Iranians. Humiliate yourselves and agree that we've given you a good bargain, say the P5+1. What has been offered by the P5+1 is indeed a good bargain, bringing Iran into nuclear commerce with the rest of the world and allowing them to continue enriching to reactor grade. It might have been better haggling for the P5+1 to have offered something more imperfect and allowed the Iranians to have saved some face by offering their modifications, which could have been accepted.

I don't quite understand why the P5+1/IAEA have been so rigid in response to the Iranians' desire to modify their offer. Some of what the Iranians have suggested (like the location of the swap) seems innocuous to me. The time-delay stuff, not so much.

I think that part of the Iranian dance, with those guys popping up from behind the stall, has been their internal disagreements and power struggles. But their changing presentations of their position do not inspire confidence, particularly given their less-than-candid performance with the IAEA.

It’s probably a good thing that I’m not in charge of the negotiations. I really don’t know where I’d go from here. The Obama administration was buying time by letting the negotiations drag at the end of the year, but the Iranian claim of moving up the enrichment to 19.75% ups the urgency. Cole was not quite right yesterday in saying that the increased level of enrichment changes nothing; the time to a bomb, if that is the intention, is still fairly long. But the higher enrichment will teach the Iranians more of what they need to know to get there. It would be better if they did not do this.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Q --> N

Stephen Walt has an eerie piece today on how Tony Blair's testimony supports Walt's and Mearsheimer's thesis that the Israel lobby had a lot to do with setting up the Iraq war. He barely mentions that other country. But here's something to consider:
Finally, let's not forget that while the Iraq war has been a disaster for the United States, it has also been very bad for Israel, not just because its principal patron has been stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, but also because the biggest winner from the war was Iran, which is the country that Israel fears most. All of this shows that despite the lobby's openly-stated commitment to promoting policies that it thinks will benefit Israel, it did not work out that way with the Iraq war.

Bits and Pieces - February 8, 2010

It's kind of amazing that they didn't keep a log of people on-site at that power plant in Connecticut. It's usually a safety and security requirement.

Another use for those pesky interwebs.

Secret caves of the Lizard People. Under Los Angeles - bet you could have guessed.

Zogby on the tea partiers.

I think I've highlighted before that the voters of Oregon approved new taxes rather than eliminate services, but Dean Baker points out that that happily progressive vote got lost in the "sky is falling" fear of the Massachusetts vote. And the first comment probably gets it right, too.

A graphic to give you some intuitive feeling for the Obama budget.

A Post About Ignorance and Politics

If we're able to achieve something we desire - and successfully repeat that ability - we must have some knowledge of what we want, the context of the wanting, the object itself, and at least a simple methodology or various methodologies for obtaining it. When we're ignorant, we hit upon that thing we desire mainly by accident, if at all. If we don't learn anything at all from the event, it's unlikely we'll ever achieve that thing we desire again.

We're all pretty obviously ignorant to varying degrees. The issue is the celebration of ignorance. Only in the US can you find willful ignorance elevated to a marker of pride. This is exceedingly strange since ignorance has no apparent value, whether intrinsic or instrumental, other than maybe to be able to say that you're not like some people who know stuff (like egghead "liberal elites"). Power has always loved it, however. An ignorant populace is the source of sustained power.

Knowing stuff is both intrinsically good and really useful. The process of coming to know and understand things (i.e. learning) is also good and enjoyable and instrumentally valuable. Since we're fallible beings, there exists the ever-present possibility that we may be mistaken about even the things we think are most profoundly true. Knowing and learning as processes help us temper the consequences of our fallibility.

While the issue usually seems to be epistemological, it's also ethical. Celebrating knowledge and learning is indeed better than celebrating ignorance because of the abundant good and goods the former provides individuals and society. Celebrating ignorance endangers us all.

NOAA's New Climate Portal

NOAA has a spiffy new portal site for data on climate change (thanks, JE). It's got some cool gadgets too, especially the Global Climate Dashboard. (Chart above is sea level rise in feet from about 1950 to 2009).

Watership Down

The cold I've had for the past few days muddled my brain sufficiently that I couldn't read my usual mix of current-events magazines. So I pulled Watership Down off the shelf and read it again. I added a little fun to it by pulling my European bird and plant guides off the shelf too, and looked up the birds and plants I didn't know that were referred to in the book. I'm always amazed that there are so many of both of them that are so different from what we have in North America.

I first read Watership Down at the urging of one of my mentors, not too long after the book first came out. "Rabbits?" I said. "Yes," he said, "but what rabbits!" Hazel's style of leadership became one of my models: let everyone define their own contributions, give credit whenever you can, and take every good idea and opportunity that comes along.

The picture at the top is taken from here, to whom I am very much indebted. Good Watership Down pictures are hard to come by on the Web. This one is from the film, which I haven't seen. That must be Hazel on the right, watching while Blackberry, the innovator and practical solutions rabbit, checks out the board that will take Fiver, the seer, and Pipkin, the little guy, across the river early in their adventures.

It's a good book for kids, too, perhaps a little dark in places. And just a good read and way to learn more of the European birds and plants.

Correction: That's Hazel testing out the board, and Blackberry standing to the side. Just what you'd expect from a good leader.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Controlling the Dialog

Joe Romm today focuses his wrath on a (very long and repetitive) piece in Washington Post Outlook entitled “Why are liberals so condescending?” No I won't give the WaPo a link. See what Joe has to say and click from there if you feel the need to read this sort of thing again.

But just as the terrorists win if you become terrified, this meme (which has appeared in MSM, various magazines purporting to be liberal, and over and over again on discussion boards), the conservatives win if liberals take this bosh seriously. It, of course, plays into the ever-popular conservative meme of victimization and thereby gives the conservative base a feel-good reflex, along with another way to bash liberals. A double win for conservatives.

But there's more. These articles and screeds are designed to tilt the playing field away from fact and toward an acceptance that all viewpoints are equally valid. It also makes liberals like Romm irritated and perhaps a bit sheepish; we're nice people, we're not condescending. Joe stays on the attack throughout his piece, but I think he's missing the point that the WaPo piece is designed to make him waste his time refuting it. And, as he refutes it, referring snobbily to fact as something that might be privileged above opinion or divine revelation, he provides more material from which conservatives can claim liberal condescension.

And more timid liberals might pull back on their arguments to allow that, for example, the conservatives have a point about freedom of religion meaning that Pat Robertson should be allowed to say that the Haitians had it coming from his God. And in doing so, they move toward validating insane viewpoints. And the conservatives can notch up the craziness.

To the casual onlooker, the spat may look like the poor conservatives are just trying to get a word in edgewise.

It's a nice little trap.